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Butterfly memories

THE EMIGRANTS by W G Sebald, trs Michael Hulse, Harvill Press pounds 14.99
Through these four tales of loss and pain runs a man with a butterfly net. In one of the tales, he appears in about 1910 as a small boy on holiday with his Russian parents at a German spa, loitering to chase his prey about a summer meadow full of flowers. He appears on a Swiss mountain- top in another tale, now "a man about 60" speaking English with a "refined but quite unplaceable" pronunciation, and in front of an American sanatorium an old man dying of grief and solitude waits every day to see "the butterfly man" crossing the vista at the end of the gardens.

Speak, Memory was the title of Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography, and Nabokov - as well as enjoying these nameless walk-on parts - is twice named in The Emigrants; in "Paul Bereyter", the second story, the main figure accosts a woman who is to comfort the rest of his life because she is reading that autobiography. Butterflies may be held to be about evanescence and beauty and happiness, their pursuit the vain effort of memory to revisit and hold these things. Sebald's book, like Nabokov's, is about the pain and loneliness and despair of exile. These miseries come not only from flight and homesickness, and not only from the destruction of an entire society and the murder of those who composed it (Sebald's four subjects are all German Jews or those who have loved German Jews). They come also from the invisible barrier which means that the exile can never return "home", even if he or she can "go back". It is the present which turns out to be another country.

Sebald has lived in England for some 30 years, writing fiction which has been honoured with prizes in Germany and which is here done marvellously into English by Michael Hulse. His own wanderings, since his birth in rural Bavaria in 1944, provide the landscapes for these four profound stories of loss: East Anglia, New York, Switzerland, Deauville, Jerusalem, Manchester. Germany recurs, too, but as a place to which wanderers and emigrants return in search of something which is not to be found, whether it is the lost home or acknowledgement of the great crime or simply reconciliation within a broken heart. Sebald writes, after describing the narrator's visit to the forlorn Jewish cemetery at Bad Kissingen, about "the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up". Elsewhere in the tales, a ruthless German who owns a sanatorium in America inflicts the most violent form of electroconvulsive therapy on his patients, in order to reduce them to "desolation and apathy" and destroy their capacity to feel. The simile for recent German history is plain.

Old Dr Henry Selwyn, who was once a child called Hersh Seweryn from Grodno, lives in a Norfolk village where loneliness and longing for the dead slowly overcome him. Paul Bereyter from Bavaria was Jewish enough to be banned from teaching but not to escape the call-up for the Second World War; he returns to teaching in the country which sent the woman he loved to Auschwitz and slowly founders in despair until the day when he - a model railway hobbyist - goes down to the steel tracks and lays his head upon them. Ambros Adelwarth emigrates to America where he becomes the gentleman's gentleman - perhaps lover - of young Cosmo Solomon, the black sheep of a banking family. They wander together, gambling and even breaking the bank at Deauville, and then set out in 1913 on a journey to Jerusalem, a sort of vain pilgrimage in search of perfection and fulfilment. Cosmo dies, driven mad by the war; Ambros survives for another 40 years, locked in silent suffering, until he retires to the "Samaria Sanatorium" and allows the German electroconvulser to relieve his misery by torturing him to death.

In the last story, which is to me the most powerful, the narrator in Manchester in the 1960s comes across Max Ferber, a painter, whose Jewish parents put him on a London-bound aircraft at Munich in 1939. They did not survive. Neither did he, entirely. A "poisonous canopy" of regret envelops him, as he paints his life away in a city whose dilapidation and decline give him a sort of comfort.

Decay is the colour of this work. Manchester is "a soot-blackened city ... drifting steadily towards ruin" after a magnificent past. Dr Selwyn lets his Norfolk house and garden fall apart, while the last head of the Samaria Sanatorium - abandoned and empty - waits impatiently for its mouse- gnawed structure to collapse into dust. Cosmo and Ambros find a Jerusalem which is filthy and ruinous. And the narrator, as a child in post-war Germany, thinks that all cities are defined by "heaps of rubble, fire- scorched walls and the gaps of windows." But against this darkness, the coloured butterflies of memory are more easily seen.